in the United States is a profit-maximizing set of entities, an
industry whose success is largely measured by its ability to deliver
viewers to advertisers. The lure of television is its programs;
commercial broadcasters seek shows of optimal value (be it in terms
of ratings generated or demographics attracted) in order to maximize
advertising revenue. The sponsor--the organization, corporation,
institution or other entity willing to pay the broadcaster that
revenue in exchange for the opportunity to advertise on television--stands
at the center of program strategies. This relationship requires
recognition of the complex interrelationship between television
networks and advertisers, two industries whose differing responsibilities
and sometimes conflicting needs produce the programming that draws
the audience to the advertisement. In U.S. television the economic
and industrial systems supporting these arrangements have their
beginnings in radio broadcasting.
The emergence of radio in the early 1930s as an astonishingly effective
means of delivering consumers to producers attracted an array of
enthusiastic advertisers, and soon the radio schedule was dominated
by shows named for their sponsors--the Chase and Sanborn
Hour, the Cliquot Club Eskimos, and the Maxwell House
Concert, for example. Produced for their clients by such advertising
agencies as J. Walter Thompson and Young and Rubicam, the single-sponsored
program was a staple of commercial broadcasting; it was an article
of faith that if a listener identified a show with its sponsor,
then that consumer was more likely to purchase the advertised product.
agency involvement in television was little more than tentative
prior to 1948, advertisers soon embraced the new medium with great
fervor; Pabst Blue Ribbon Bouts, Camel Newsreel, and the
Chesterfield Supper Club were testimony to the steadfast
belief in sponsor identification. However, as program costs soared
in the early 1950s, it became increasingly difficult for agencies
to assume the financial burdens of production, and even the concept
of single sponsorship was subject to economic pressure.
the 1952-53 season television's spiraling costs (an average 500%
rise in live programming budgets from 1949 to 1952) threatened to
drive many advertisers completely out of the market. Many sponsors
turned to a non-network syndication strategy, cobbling together
enough local station buys across the country to approximate the
kind of national coverage a network usually provided. Television
executives--most notably Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver at NBC--countered
sponsor complaints by championing the idea of participation advertising,
or the "magazine concept." Here, advertisers purchased discrete
segments of shows (typically one or two minute blocks) rather than
entire programs. Like magazines, which featured advertisements for
a variety of products, the participation show might, depending on
its length, carry commercials from up to four different sponsors.
Similarly, just as a magazine's editorial practice was presumably
divorced from its advertising content, the presence of multiple
sponsors meant that no one advertiser could control the program.
as agencies relinquished responsibility for production, they still
maintained some semblance of control over the content of the programs
in which their clients advertised, a censorship role euphemistically
referred to as "constructive influence." As one advertising executive
noted, "If my client sells peanut butter and the script calls for
a guy to be poisoned eating a peanut butter sandwich, you can bet
we're going to switch that poison to a martini." Still, this type
of input was mild compared with the actual melding of commercial
and editorial content, a practice all but abandoned by the vast
majority of agencies by 1953.
Madison Avenue's initially hostile reaction, participation advertising
ultimately became television's dominant paradigm for two reasons.
One was purely cost; purchasing 30 to 60-minute blocks of prime
time was prohibitively expensive to all but a few advertisers. More
importantly, participations were the ideal promotional vehicle for
packaged goods companies manufacturing a cornucopia of brand names.
While it is true that the magazine concept opened up television
to an array of low budget advertisers, and thus expanded the medium's
revenue base, it was companies like Procter and Gamble that catalyzed
the trend (ironic, given that Proctor and Gamble today has operational
control over two soap operas, the last vestige of single sponsored
shows on television). Further, back-to-back recessions in the mid-1950s
provided an impetus for the producers of these recession-proof goods
to scatter their spots throughout the schedule; their subsequent
sales success solidified the advent of participations on the schedule.
Without the economic rationale of single sponsorship, most advertisers
chose to circulate their commercials through many different shows
rather than rely on identification with a single program.
"Speedy" for Alka-Seltzer
Photo courtesy of Bayer Corporation
1960 sponsorship was no longer synonymous with control--it now merely
meant the purchase of advertising time on somebody else's program.
While sponsor identification remained important to such advertisers
as Kraft and Revlon, most sponsors prized circulation over prestige;
as a result, fewer agencies offered advertiser-licensed shows to
the networks. The quiz scandals of 1958-59, often identified as
the causative factor in network control of program procurement,
was in actuality only a coda.
it was the networks' assumption of programming control that resulted
in a narrower and more conservative conception of program content,
with a greater reliance on established genres and avoidance of technical
and/or narrative experimentation. In the effort to provide shows
that would offend no sponsor, network television's attempts to be
all things to all advertisers drained the medium of its youthful
vigor, plunging it into a premature middle age. By appealing to
target audiences--at least in the early 1950s--advertisers were
in many ways more responsive and innovative than the networks.
the vestiges of single sponsorship remain in, of all places, public
television--Mobil Masterpiece Theater, for example--advertisers
still wield enormous, if indirect, influence on program content.
For example, in 1995 Procter and Gamble, the nation's largest television
advertiser, announced that it would no longer sponsor daytime talk
shows whose content the company considered too salacious. Today's
marketers realize they can influence programs through selective
breeding, bankrolling the content they support and pulling dollars
from topics they do not.
Robert C., editor. Channels of Discourse, Reassembled. Chapel
Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Erik. The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate. New York:
Oxford University Press, 1978.
Arthur. TV Advertising: A Handbook of Modern Practice. New
York: Harper, 1959.
William. Fifties Television: The Industry and Its Critics.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Muriel B. Prime-Time Television: Content and Control. Beverly
Hills, California: Sage, 1980.
Stuart, and Elizabeth Ewen. Channels of Desire. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press, 1992.
Vance. "The Weaver Years at NBC." Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio),
Agency; "Golden Age"
of Television; Programming;